Giles Whattam (uea.ac.uk) on successfully redesigning a university flagship website

Giles Whattam (Associate Director of Marketing Strategy at the University of East Anglia) talks us through the process of a flagship website process and identifies his top tips for success.

Transcript of the interview with Giles Whattam

Nathan Monk: Today, we’ll be discussing the new UEA website, SMILE won a competitive tender process to work with the university as its redesigned partner for the project. As the only UI partner in this multi‑vendor chain, we were able to lead the conversation about what the website should do, say and look like.

We made some strategic decisions about the future of the site, and we collaborated closely with teams inside of UEA and also technical teams that implemented our work into the university’s choice of CMS. To talk about this in more detail, I’m joined by Giles Whattam, Associate Director of Marketing Strategy at the University of East Anglia.

Hi Giles!

Giles Whattam: Hi Nathan.

Nathan Monk: Giles, thank you so much for joining us today. I’d really like you to begin by setting the scene if that’s okay? And perhaps talking about what does the new website mean for UEA?

Giles Whattam: So the new website means we have a website that is fully working! So the project was bought out from a situation we have with the existing legacy website, which was fundamentally broken. It had evolved over a number of years and hadn’t really been spun up in a particularly effective way, and then had had lots of non-website editors, introducing pages and copy and content. And we had fundamentally a website that fell over quite a lot. It had issues with navigation. It had issues with search. So we had a whole number of factors, which meant it couldn’t really be fixed.

And therefore we made the decision to go with a new site. What that’s meant is we now have a very user-focused website. It is very slim down from the original site being 14,000 plus pages. We have a dedicated, external-facing website for external uses and, and a lot of internal content that is now within a portal. So digital content has become much more user-focused, very much focused on user journeys, and also very much about actions. What does someone need to do when they come to the website?

Whereas the old website was very much just a collection of content. Someone, someone was told to publish content and, and it was published, but, but didn’t necessarily reflect what they needed to do with that, or where they’ve come from or where they needed to go.

Nathan Monk: I recently spoke with Joe Marshall about the logistics of running the project that they scale with all those kinds of different stakeholders. And one of the things that Joe had mentioned was one of the unexpected benefits of working with SMILE, was the ideas on the innovation, in the projects that we bought to the table. The course catalogue for me is, is one of those ideas. it’s quite a lot different from a lot of your peers. Is that something that you’d agree with Giles?

Giles Whattam: Yeah, I think that the original desire for the whole project was to be very user-focused. And I think that there were a number of principles that we set in. One was around persona development and prototype and user testing. What we knew from our competitors and our own course catalogue at the time was the way it was structured, didn’t work particularly well within mobile. Another principle that we established fairly early on, was that we were going to be mobile-first. And the simple fact that the course catalogue contains a lot of information meant that you effectively ended up scrambling a long way in a traditional, single-page presentation of course content.

And we, therefore, knew we needed to try out some alternatives and SMILE bought to the table: The ability to have two or three different prototypes that we then put in front of users. And, and we could get user feedback on that; what worked well, what didn’t work well, and it moved away from kind of opinion‑based decision‑making, to a qualitative decision‑making process whereby we could ensure that we were meeting the needs of the majority in terms of how we were developing pages and how we were presenting content.

Nathan Monk: One of the other things that is very different from your peers in the space, is the home page. How has the homepage been received?

Giles Whattam: Well, the homepage has been up for the best part of 18 months now. So its not caused problems. It is doing its job. And I think what we all knew was, again, the standard format for a home page really didn’t present what was unique and special about the university. The homepage is one of those places where everybody wants to be there. Traditionally, you know, everybody thinks that they need to be on the home page. And as a result, it just becomes very vanilla because it’s trying to do too many jobs for too many people.

Traditionally, you know, everybody thinks that they need to be on the home page. And as a result, it just becomes very vanilla because it’s trying to do too many jobs for too many people.

What we were able to do through the project was, was demonstrate with analytics, user behaviour. That lots of people were entering the website, not via the homepage, but they were coming in via search for particular content. So if our search was working, the homepage becomes less important for your kind of user that knows what they want and then becomes a shop window. And what we then wanted to do was learn from outside of the sector and, and present a brand positioning piece whilst still meeting the needs of users that may end up there and want to get somewhere via search, or get somewhere via quick links to the content that they need. And I think that’s, that’s what we’ve done.

We’ve got an impactful, visually appealing, visually intriguing home page that tells the story we want to tell. But does ensure that people get to the content that they need as quickly as possible.

Nathan Monk: And you know, it is something that’s different. It is something, that other institutions aren’t approaching in that way.

I’m really interested in what you’ve just said there about that innovation actually working for you and the website itself as a whole, what successes has the new website seen?

Giles Whattam: So we’ve reduced the number of pages people look at within a session. So that tells me that people are getting into the information that they need quicker. We’ve reduced bounce rates. So people are less likely to land on the website and then bounce off.

And, and I think when we had an internal versus external website where all content was together, we found people were bouncing away quite quickly. It was too impenetrable to get to the information they wanted.

And we’ve increased dwell time when people get to the content. And, you know, the calls to action are being engaged with more. So we’re certainly making ourselves more visible. The content is it is easy to find and people are achieving what they want to achieve when they come to the website. We’re also now in a position where previously, we couldn’t measure things like form completion, and we’re now able to do things like that. And people are, are increasing the amount that they’re undertaking in the website, as opposed to a goal to meet the activity.

Nathan Monk: That’s fantastic. Yeah, that’s really good. And of course, the website itself won a nice, shiny heist award recently as well.

Giles Whattam: Yeah. I mean, that’s a reflection of the hard work. I think it’s very hard when you’re close to a project because you’re seeing all the things that didn’t quite happen, or still are working in progress. And there are still issues with the content management system we use.

There are still elements within the project that I would like to see implemented that we scoped out and we built prototypes. But an award does reflect the hard work that went into it.

I mean, the project as a whole; I think you would probably say rebuilding an external-facing website is a big, big project. Or, redefining a student portal or a staff portal, are big projects in themselves! And the challenge we had with our website, just not functioning.

We have to combine all three projects into one, and fundamentally do all of that.

And the nature of the way that the content was built, with a lot of both internal content goals facing externally, it, it wasn’t able to be done incrementally. You’ve kind of got to get to a certain point. And, you know, that’s a lot of work, if you think of the amount of design that goes into a particular page, and then all the copy editing and then the approvals that exist within universities. I think, an award does, does that very little thing of reflecting that hard work. So I’m pleased that the website’s now an award‑winning website.

Nathan Monk: It’s really interesting to hear, though, because it sounds that your thinking has changed as well. So before you, you basically said that the previous website was completely broken and you weren’t able to do those incremental changes, but now it sounds like the website is empowering you to make incremental changes and make those improvements steadily. And it sounds like you’ve got a roadmap for the future of the site and, you know, the sorts of things that you want to be able to do… And now you’ve got the platform to do that.

Screenshot of interview with Nathan Monk and Giles Whattam on a yellow background with two video content blocks. This interview is about how to successfully redesign a flagship website.
Interview between Nathan Monk and Giles Whattam

Giles Whattam: Yeah. I mean, so certainly the stability and the simplicity of the way that the website is structured has meant we can go in and then start doing some really effective SEO work. We can optimize user journeys. It’s easy to keep track of things like broken links and areas, within the website. Whereas previously, it was so large and therefore a bigger problem. It’s almost impossible to know where to start. The other thing that’s changed from the university back then, is the number of individual departments in there. The executive team, in particular, is the way it’s governed and manages the number of users that are within the website – but also the level of expectation around their skillset and the level of their involvement in the future development of the website. If we’d maintain the existing governance structures, (you know, four or 500 people being allowed to do whatever they want and publish wherever they want,) we wouldn’t have been able to have done that. And as a result, we wouldn’t have been able to invent the roadmap. It would have just been impossible. Whereas now when we’re thinking about improving the website, we’re talking to stakeholder groups, that’s like a 10th, the size of the existing run. The people have the skills to understand what we’re talking about. And therefore a roadmap can be delivered because it’s quite clear why we’re doing things and what the benefit is.

Nathan Monk: That’s great to hear. So now I come to you, with what I think is probably the most important question of today’s session. What tips would you give to others undertaking a flagship website project?

Giles Whattam: So there’s something around the methodology that you should consider really early on. Agile is something that’s talked about a lot, and you have got to know that you’ve got the time to be properly agile because if you’re going to do it, you have got to allow the time to do the prototyping and the testing – and allow yourself to be very granular in terms of how you’re designing. That will extend the timeline, the project, your ability to then implement things incrementally also needs to be considered.

So we adopted agile. We wanted to do prototyping and user journey testing. What we couldn’t do was incrementally make that go to the site because, you know, the website was fundamentally broken!

So you have to pick a methodology that you know is going to work. So we ended up with kind of an agile/waterfall hybrid, which wasn’t ideal. We can now work in agile because we have a strong, stable working website. That’s the platform from which we can deliver incremental improvement. So I’d say, get your project management methodology sorted fairly early on when you’re selecting agencies, and don’t underestimate how little some agencies narrow about how complicated universities are. Every industry says that they are more complicated than anyone else and that, you know it’s a unique sector to work in. Universities are really complicated. We do not have a single customer. We are not completing a transaction within a website. This isn’t a brochure where this is everything from research collaboration through to e‑commerce through to a big complicated virtual learning environment portal. And I think some people can, can oversimplify that.

And I think we had that with some of the parties (not SMILE) involved fairly early on that thought that the course catalog was something really simple. And actually it’s just the directory and it’s not. It syncs with other systems, the way the information comes into it, the number of cycles that you have to display at a particular time, the impact of things like CMA and ASA.

I’m a big fan of getting people from outside of the sector because they bring ideas, but you will spend a lot of time educating someone who doesn’t know the sector whatsoever. And that’s fine. You’ve just got to accept that.

So two top tips for the early stages of a project: One is, make sure you’ve got a robust project management methodology and to make sure you understand all the things that need to be delivered and all the parties understand the complexity of what needs to be delivered. And ideally, either do the website, or do the portal. Don’t try and do everything together.

And therefore a roadmap can be delivered because it’s quite clear why we’re doing things and what the benefit is.

Nathan Monk: What would you say that that was perhaps one of the unexpected benefits then Of working with SMILE? Is that because we got this experience in education that helped that help the process flow a bit easier?

Giles Whattam: The risk of working with someone who knows the sector and works in the sector a lot is you can end up with a kind of cookie-cutter model. “We know everything about this, where we’re just gonna, you know, we’re going to produce what we think.” We know this project was about taking the power away from the agency and giving it to the users basically. So this was always going to be about making sure that the users got the experience that they wanted. And I think that was really important to say that. Being able to talk to an agency that understands the difference between an international postgraduate research student and an undergraduate home student who lives within your city, is useful because they are fundamentally different in the kinds of things they need. And the user journey is very, very different. And it comes back to that you can do that with someone who doesn’t know it, but you will be kind of educating them en route and providing them with that expertise, which may slow things down. So it’s a bit of a balance of both.

Nathan Monk: Absolutely. And, you know, I really hope that we showed that we got that balance quite well. You know, we are those education specialists, but just taking one of the examples from this session: The home page, for example, is completely different to the sector. And I think it really talks to how we created the website to fit UEA.

Giles Whattam: Yeah. I think if we, if we’d said “just create a website”, we could have done it probably a lot quicker and we would have ended up with something a lot closer to what we had previously. It would probably split out the internal and the external content. And would we have represented our brand in the way that I think we now clearly do through the website then? I think we would have had a bit of a look-alike website.

We certainly wouldn’t have been able to introduce the innovation that we’ve introduced in things like the way that we manage new stories within the website. Or the way we’ve managed events on the website. Or the way that the course catalogue is presented. So I think that acknowledging that level of innovation – I think you’ve kind of got to have an organization behind you that that’s going to allow you to do that. Because you know, it is time-consuming and it takes a lot of user engagement and it does mean making those decisions that means not everyone will get what they want. And, and I guess that means the project has to have confidence in what it’s delivering because if you’re confident in something, you can usually get it over the line.

Nathan Monk: Well, that’s, that’s brilliant. And you know, I’m really looking forward to seeing how your website develops in the future as well. That is about all we have time for today. So Giles – thank you very much for your time. Really appreciate it.

We’ve got some other videos in this UVA case study series too, but this does wrap up today’s interview on the UEA website. If you’d like to know more, you can visit smile at, we are smile.com. Thanks and see you soon.

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Nathan Monk
I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges. I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.